– Spring/Summer 2018

Britta Marakatt-Labba: ‘Images Are Always Stories’

Anders Kreuger

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Garjját (The Crows), 1981, wool embroidery on linen, 40 × 110 cm. Courtesy the artist and University of Tromsø, Tromsø

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Guolásteapmi (Fishing), 1979, wool embroidery on linen, 32 × 53 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tromsø kommun, Tromsø

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Njuovvan (The Slaughter), 1986, wool embroidery on linen, 20 × 23 cm. Courtesy the artist and Statens konstråd, Stockholm

How shall we characterise Britta Marakatt-Labba’s work: as quintessentially visual because it shape-shifts into storytelling without losing its identity as image, or as supremely narrative because it uses lines, literally, to bypass linearity? Such questions are so fundamental that they become all but impossible to answer, yet we shall always be asking about the meaning, and function and status of the image. These are core concerns in every culture, whether it is labelled ‘indigenous' or not.

Those who argue against interpretation and judgment, two keystones of Western cultural self-understanding, are often driven by another core concern regarding the creative destruction that radical subversion can bring. There are countless examples, but I will just mention Robert Filliou, who insisted on avoiding the term ‘art’ and spoke, instead, of ‘that mad feeling’, ‘that vocational game’ or

  1. See Anders Kreuger and Irmeline Lebeer (ed.), Robert Filliou: The Secret of Permanent Creation, Antwerp/ Brussels/Milan: M HKA, Editions Lebeer Hossmann and Mousse Publishing, 2016, pp.165–68.

  2. Her works also have Swedish titles, but here it makes more sense to use the Northern Sami versions and their English translations.

  3. The group’s founding members were Aage Gaup, Josef Halse, Berit Marit Hætta, Trygve Lund Guttormsen, Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Ranveig Persen and Synnøve Persen. See Jan-Erik Lundström’s and Maria Therese Stephansen’s essays about Hans Ragnar Mathisen (whose artist name is Keviselie) in Afterall, no.44, Autumn/Winter 2017, pp.102–21.

  4. An up-to-date and accessible (for Scandinavian speakers) introduction to Sami history is the three- part television documentary Samernas tid (The Time of the Sami) from 2017, co-produced by Sweden’s UR, Norway’s NRK and Finland’s Svenska YLE, available at http://urplay.se/serie/203240-samernas- tid (last accessed on 20 February 2018). But it is remarkable that nothing similar has been made until now.

  5. Unless otherwise stated, all first-person quotes are by Britta Marakatt-Labba, in conversation with the author on 1 October 2017.

  6. See, for instance, Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (trans. Willard R. Trask), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972 [1951], pp.495–97.

  7. Bengt Löw on the fourth (and possibly most important) reason for Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, a leading magnate in seventeenth-century Sweden, to commission the first scholarly study of the Sami. In ‘Johannes Schefferus och hans Lapponia’ (‘Johannes Schefferus and His Lapponia’), preface to Shefferus Lappland, Stockholm/Lund: Nordiska Museet and Gebers, 1956, p.13 (translation the author). This is the somewhat belated Swedish edition (translated from the Latin by Henrik Sundin) of J. Schefferus, Lapponia, id est regionis Lapponum et gentis nova et verissima descriptio, in qua multa de origine, superstitione, sacris magicis, victu, cultu, negotiis Lapponum, item animalium, metallorumque indole, quæ in terris eorum proveniunt, hactenus incognita produntur, & eiconibus adjectis cum cura illustrantur (Lappland, That Is: A New and Truthful Description of the Land and People of the Lapps, in Which Much That Was Hitherto Not Known about the Origins, Superstitions and Magic of the Lapps, Their Food, Living Conditions and Activities, and Also about the Nature, Animals and Minerals of Their Land, Is Presented and Carefully Illustrated), Frankfurt am Main: Christianus Wolffius, 1673.

  8. On the other hand, Britta Marakatt-Labba points out, the Swedish government refuses to acknowledge the Sami (who consider themselves one people speaking different languages, or different versions of one language) as an indigenous population, granting them only the status as a national minority, along with the Roma, speakers of Yiddish and the Finnish-speaking population of the north. Telephone conversation with the author, 27 February 2018.

  9. The border between Sweden and Muscovy in 1595 in the Treaty of Teusina; the border between Sweden and Denmark-Norway not until 1751 in the Treaty of Strömstad, with an amendment on the right of the Sami to migrate with their reindeer across the border known as Lappkodicillen (The Lapp Codicil) that is still in force.

  10. This approach was pioneered by Michael Taussig in Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, New York/London: Routledge, 1993. A particularly interesting application of such analysis to northern Eurasian facts is the Danish anthropologist Rane Willerslev’s Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2007.

  11. Ernst Manker, Nåidkonst. Trolltrummans bildvärld (Art of the Noaiddi: The Image World of the Sorcerer’s Drum), Stockholm: LT:s förlag, 1965, p.9. This is a popular introduction to the topic, based on the same authors’ illustrated study in two parts, Die lappische Zaubertrommel. Eine ethnologische Monographie (Lapp Sorcerer’s Drums: An Ethnological Monograph), Stockholm/Lund: Gebers and Nordiska museet, 1938–50.

  12. Jan-Erik Lundström (ed.), Britta Marakatt-Labba: Broderade berättelser/Embroidered Stories/Sággon muitalusat, Kiruna: Koncentrat, 2010, p.48.

  13. Herman Lundborg, in Vår bostad (Our Dwelling, which until it folded in 2006 was distributed to all members of Sweden’s largest cooperative housing association), 1929, quoted in Maja Hagerman, Käraste Herman. Rasbiologen Herman Lundborgs gåta (Dearest Herman: The Enigma of Racial Biologist Herman Lundborg), Stockholm: Norstedts, 2015. A re-enactment of an anthropometric photography session is included in the award-winning feature film Sameblod (Sami Blood) from 2016 directed by Amanda Kernell.

  14. On 20 December 2017, Sweden’s Minister for Culture Alice Bah Kuhnke awarded Britta Marakatt- Labba the Illis Quorum Meruere Labores (For Those Whose Works Merit It) medal, of the 8th size, ‘for her long and in many ways significant practice, which unites traditional Sami craft with the transcendent language of contemporary art.’ Translation the author.